Education & Family

Heads challenge parents over riot youths

Looting Clapham
Image caption Young people amid the disorder at Clapham Junction in south London on Monday night

Head teachers' leader, Brian Lightman, says there need to be some "hard questions" and "uncomfortable truths" for parents and families, after youngsters were caught up in an unprecedented night of violence and looting.

Although there were also adults taking part in the disturbances, it was often youngsters who were taking part in the waves of destruction that shifted swiftly across London and other cities.

Mr Lightman blames a toxic mixture of dysfunctional parenting and a consumer and celebrity culture which tells youngsters they should have whatever they want.

He warns that too often schools are faced with pupils who have never had any boundaries in their home lives - where there has never been a sense of right and wrong.

"Parents are not willing to say 'no'. That short, simple word is an important part of any child's upbringing," says Mr Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

"It's desperately important that children have a sense of right and wrong. But we often come across children who have never been told that something is wrong."

'Sense of direction'

Schools are often the only place where these youngsters have had boundaries put on their behaviour, says Mr Lightman.

"Schools are the last havens of an orderly society for many young people," he says.

The latest outbreak of violence also has "far-reaching implications for the curriculum", he says, with a need to emphasise a sense of responsibility, morality and a "sense of direction".

He also says that there need to be questions raised about the messages sent to young people by a consumerist culture which gives the impression that they can become "rich and famous without doing any work".

"The majority of young people have a very clear sense of right and wrong," he says. But if there is no sense of this passed on to young people - "you only have to read Lord of the Flies".

It's certainly not convincing to blame London's school system for this outbreak. Schools in the capital have seen much-improved results, there has been the biggest wave of school rebuilding since the Victorians.

Young people in the capital are more likely to get good qualifications and go to university than many other parts of the country.

Wealth gap

But there have been campaigners drawing links between the riots and the huge gap between rich and poor in the capital.

Image caption A clothes shop being looted during disturbances in Hackney, north London

James Mills, head of the Save the EMA campaign, has warned about the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance which was designed to keep disadvantaged young people in education.

"The government should not risk creating a lost generation of unqualified and unskilled young people, who feel that the government is against them and that they are not worth investing in, otherwise it only helps create such scenes," said Mr Mills.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of Kids Company which works with disturbed and excluded youngsters, says these are the actions of a "completely ignored underclass" who have developed a "perverse morality".

"They don't feel included in mainstream society, their role models... are the drug dealers and the drug dealers are their measure of powerful people.

"So when they're looking for heroes in their community they don't get the role models they need, what they're getting is people who've made it good through criminality.

"We could spend all our time blaming the young people, but I suggest we show some curiosity as to why there are so many young people who are completely divorced from mainstream society."

'Lawless masculinity'

James Treadwell, a criminologist from the University of Leicester, suggests that the argument over whether this is about a reaction to deprivation or the chaos of a "feral underclass", is missing what's actually happening.

And that's looting. He says it's much less about riot and protest and much more about opportunistic theft, usually by young men.

There are not the pitched battles between police and protesters that marked riots in the 1980s, or even the recent student protests, but are sporadic outbreaks of looting.

"It's about the acquisition of goods, it's quite planned, it's about getting hold of a new laptop," he says, describing this as a kind of violent materialism.

He describes this as "lawless masculinity", akin to football hooliganism, fuelled by excitement and consumerism, grabbing the items that give young men status - mobile phones, computers, trainers, jewellery.

"This is where having a new pair of trainers is the most important thing, where success is measured by the mobile phone or the jacket you're wearing," says Dr Treadwell.

"Later on they might say they weren't thinking, that there was a momentary madness. But in that moment there is no consideration of normal morality."